Top-level domain safeguards shield brands from unwanted and risqué URLs showing up on the Web

Taylor Swift made tech headlines in March when she swooped up adult-themed top-level domain names, which are the final part in a URL. Sorry, folks — TaylorSwift.porn will never hit the market for the general public.

Salacious domain names for trademarked brands, including Microsoft and Office, also were taken off the market during an early stage of the TLD acquisition process called “sunrise.” This phase allows trademarked brands to secure new TLDs related to their trademarks before the TLDs are made available to the public.

Sunrise is a safeguard that was put in place by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in 2012, when it opened the application process for companies to claim rights to any generic term, such as photography, actor, and lawyer, to be used as a TLD to create new domain names. At the end of the application process, ICANN approved more than 1,300 TLDs to be rolled out through 2017. If Microsoft’s people had missed the Sunrise period and a third party acquired Microsoft.porn, for example, the company would have a public-relations nightmare on its hands. Lucky for Microsoft, ICANN had some forethought and put parameters in place for trademark and brand protection, allowing Microsoft to take control of the rights to TLDs such as .porn and .adult that contain the company’s name.

Trademarks across the globe are listed in ICANN’s Trademark Clearinghouse, allowing trademark owners to cheaply and easily take control of websites that infringe on trademarks. For example, Taylor Swift’s trademarked name means she can take ownership of TaylorSwift.porn or TaylorSwift.adult, even if another party already owns the URL.

Earlier this year, the pop star trademarked “this sick beat,” a line from her hugely popular song “Shake It Off.” If a person were to register ThisSickBeat.rocks to operate, say, a music-review site, then that person runs the chance of Swift swooping in to take the domain into her own possession.

Bellevue-based Donuts Inc. and Kirkland-based Rightside Ltd. offer an additional layer of brand security on their combined 340 TLDs with a demand protective marks list, or DPML, which allows the companies to discriminate who can purchase specific domains. For example, since Microsoft is a trademarked brand, any domain with Microsoft in it is off-limits for Donuts and Rightside customers. So Microsoft.rocks, Microsoft.ninja, and even Microsoft.dentist are off the market for every customer except the company.

Donuts CEO Paul Stahura says safeguards put in place by ICANN mean there isn’t as much “cybersquatting” as he initially thought there would be when the new TLDs debuted. “It’s nowhere near what was predicted because these rights-protection mechanisms work,” he says.

The new TLDs started hitting the market in 2012, but neither Donuts nor Rightside, which spun off from Demand Media in August 2014, has put much effort into marketing and merchandizing until now.

“We’ve spent a decent amount of time on merchandising, and what we’ve started to see is 15 percent of the time, when consumers have the choice between .com and a new TLD, they are choosing the new TLD,” says Rightside CEO Taryn Naidu. “From zero at the beginning of the year to 15 percent of all new registrations are new TLDs, and that’s without any real awareness of the campaign.”

Kayne West announced the launch of his new collaboration with Adidas in February with a tweet and link to
Yeezy.supply. Stahura is excited about the site because .supply belongs to Donuts, but he’s just as excited for the attention the unique TLD received.

“He used this made-up word ‘yeezy,’ and he could have picked a .com. He could have picked YeezyShoes.com, or Yeezy.shoes, but he picked Yeezy.supply,” Stahura says with a laugh. “I think there’s gonna be more standing out and people will notice when you’re different and not one of the 120 million .coms.”

Naidu experienced a celebrity-induced euphoria when in March the Rolling Stones registered a Rightside TLD with JustAKissAway.rocks — the domain name is a line in the band’s song “Gimme Shelter” — to promote an upcoming summer tour.

“These TLDs set people apart. They could have chosen whatever they want, but it’s a fun way to get that personality out in the market for them,” Naidu says.

Naidu and Stahura say the biggest market for TLDs is small business, an arena where URL specificity can help with brand recognition. “There’s a better connection with the end user that reads the URL and sees not SmithAndJackson.com, but SmithAndJackson.clothing or .attorney,” Naidu says. “You instantly have an understanding of what you expect to see from them.”

Naidu says established brands also are getting on the alternative-TLD train. Visit Amazon.com for your online shopping, but head to Amazon.jobs if you want to get hired.

“These guys understand that they’re trying to speak to a different audience, so they need a different experience for that,” Naidu says. “There is a branding opportunity here that people are catching on to.”

In the very near future, URLs will do some heavy lifting for marketing departments.

“We’re at the lowest awareness point. It will never be lower than it is today,” Naidu says. “When Kanye tweeted out his new brand, it’s a connection point that it’s not a .com. In just a year from now, it will be much more commonplace to see (new TLDs).”